For many years, the European Parliament has been dismissed as a waste of space: a double waste of space, in fact, since it maintains two huge parliament buildings – one in Brussels and one in Strasbourg in eastern France, which is used just one week a month.
I am meeting Martin Schulz, president of the parliament, during a Strasbourg week. Under his presidency, which began last year, the parliament’s public image as an irrelevance has changed. Aided by some new powers and an economic crisis, Schulz and his allies have moved the parliament towards the centre of the action. It was the European Parliament that was behind the law to limit bankers’ bonuses, which it passed earlier this month. Now the parliament is threatening to reject the European Union’s new budget – potentially pushing the EU into financial chaos this summer.
The restaurant where Schulz has chosen to meet is in a quiet street near the river. Although the Strasbourg version of Le Gavroche has no connection to the grand and expensive London restaurant of the same name, it is obviously a place for people who take food seriously. A single room, decorated in muted colours with low lighting, it has just earned its first Michelin star. The other diners seem mainly to be middle-aged couples and, as I wait for my guest to arrive, I can hear occasional delighted cries of “Ooh-la-la!” as some elaborate concoction is brought to their tables.
At just after 9pm, Schulz bustles through the door. He is a stocky, bearded 57-year-old, dressed in the politician’s uniform of a grey suit, blue shirt and striped tie. Accompanying him is a spokesman. Normally, this is against the etiquette of “Lunch with the FT” but the president’s office has pleaded that he may need help with translation. In reality, this proves superfluous. A native of Aachen in the Rhineland, Schulz also speaks fluent French and English.
A Social Democrat, Schulz has made his mark during the euro crisis with his outspoken views. So, as we settle down at the table, I ask him how serious he thinks the situation is. I am expecting the standard Eurocrat reply, which is to say that things are bad but that Europe is making progress and will emerge strengthened. Instead, he takes a rather darker line: “The EU is really threatened by failure,” he says, frowning. “I think we should not underestimate the dramatic reality … Here, or in Brussels, I have the feeling that people are not taking sufficient account of what is going on in Europe … The moment people withdraw their support from an idea, the idea is finished.” The consensus on Europe, he adds, “is in a kind of freefall”.
Conveniently enough, Schulz’s proposed solution to this crisis of public confidence is to grant a much larger role to the European Parliament. His argument is that because the parliament is the only directly elected EU institution, it has more chance of engaging the public. But, to its critics, the parliament is the epitome of the remoteness of the EU, with its inhabitants often portrayed as unknown, overpaid and out of touch. The image of the parliament’s president dining in some style at a smart restaurant in Strasbourg is the kind of thing calculated to infuriate the more puritanical eurosceptics in Britain’s Conservative party. On the other hand, I notice that a nearby table is occupied by some British Tories, including Martin Callanan, leader of the Conservative group in the parliament. Before sitting down, Schulz, a leftwing German federalist, and the Tories had greeted each other with a degree of mutual warmth that surprised me.
To be fair, there are several grander establishments in Strasbourg, a city noted for its gastronomy. But the president tells me that, in his opinion, Le Gavroche is the finest restaurant in the city. Since Schulz is obviously a regular, I ask for a suggestion about what to order. “I recommend the foie gras,” he replies with an impressive disregard for the sensibilities of the animal rights lobby. For the main course, Schulz orders sea bass while I go for lamb on a mousse of aubergine and red beans. Since it is the evening, I am rather hoping for some wine but Schulz starts with sparkling water, switches to tomato juice and then grape juice during the meal. I decide to have wine anyway and, on the advice of the solicitous proprietress, Nathalie Fuchs, I order a glass of red Côtes du Rhône to go with the lamb.
It turns out Schulz is teetotal. He explains that, as a teenager growing up in West Germany, he had been an excellent footballer, with hopes of turning professional. “I did nothing but play football at school,” he recalls. But two serious knee injuries at the age of 18 wrecked his dream. “From one day to another, I was failed at school and my football was over and then I fell into a deep crisis and began to drink heavily.” Was he an alcoholic? “I don’t know,” he says, ruminatively, as if the thought had just occurred to him. “I decided for myself not to drink. I was young enough to have the strength. It was the 26th of June 1980.” I ask how he remembers the date so precisely. He explains that he writes a diary each day. “At the end of the day, even today, for half an hour in my hotel, I’ll write my diary. Yesterday night, for example, I was so tired but I wrote my one page.”
The foie gras arrives. Three thick pink circles, with a black sauce drizzled on top, are placed before each of us. Immoral it may be but is it as delicious as Shulz promised and seems to taste faintly of alcohol – sherry perhaps.
Rather than go to university, Schulz became an apprentice bookseller. He also went into politics young, joining the Social Democrats at the age of 18. He became a member of the European Parliament in 1994 but his European political career really took off in 2003 after a spectacular clash in parliament with Silvio Berlusconi. Schulz smiles as he recalls how he deliberately baited the legally embattled Italian prime minister with a series of pointed questions about the European arrest warrant. Eventually, Berlusconi snapped and suggested that Schulz should audition for the part of a concentration camp guard in a movie. I ask Schulz how he felt, hearing those words. “I felt humiliated,” he replies simply. “My whole life in politics I spend in the fight against anti-Semitism and Nazism and this is part of my identity and I thought, ‘How can this man dare to attack me in such a way?’ ”
Comparing a modern German politician to a Nazi was explosive stuff a decade ago. But, as the euro crisis has got more and more severe, it has now become fairly commonplace in parts of southern Europe – with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, sometimes caricatured in Nazi garb in newspaper cartoons. Schulz acknowledges that anti-German sentiment is on the rise but blames it partly on missteps by the Merkel government. He makes the point by citing a recent speech by a former German chancellor and fellow Social Democrat, Helmut Schmidt, who is now in his nineties. Schmidt’s message, according to Schulz, was that “whenever Germany has chosen to impose its will on others, it has ended in disaster for Germany. And this is my position.”
So is that what Merkel is doing? Schulz looks a little uneasy and asks whether we are off the record. I remind him that this interview is very much on the record and that I had ostentatiously turned on a tape recorder at the beginning of the meal. There is a long pause before he continues. “I think the Germans have not yet made the choice,” he says. “It is undecided in which direction Germany will go.” He has a complicated explanation of how his Social Democrats would ease the euro crisis by backing a redemption fund that would seek to lower the borrowing costs of indebted nations. This is not, he emphasises, to be confused with the mutualisation of debt. I am reminded of the numbing complexities of the inner workings of the EU, which I once covered as a correspondent in Brussels.
What about France, I ask – noting that the papers I had read on the train to Strasbourg had conveyed a picture of a nation undergoing a full-blown crisis? Schulz seems to agree. France, he muses, is undergoing a “deep psychological crisis created by a justified mistrust for a political system that has created a political class that is completely disconnected from the rest of the country”. His bluntness startles me, and I idly wonder whether somebody has spiked his grape juice.
Schulz’s relations with parts of the British establishment are also pretty frosty. “I’m one of the candidates to win the prize for the most unpopular man in the City, that’s for sure,” he says, laughing merrily. But he is unrepentant about the new limits on bankers’ bonuses. “With the financial system, it is similar to the European Union. You need, in the end, the acceptance of the people. If you lose that, you are finished.”
The City is not the only British institution Schulz has clashed with. He says David Cameron and George Osborne unfairly misrepresented him during the negotiations on the EU budget, which the British wanted cut. “These people dare to say publicly the European parliament wants to spend more money. We want to balance the budget, nothing else.”
Our conversation is interrupted by a beep from his mobile phone. Schulz looks down and starts texting back, sighing heavily. I assume it must be some sort of urgent political business but he explains that it is, in fact, a domestic matter. “I have a big construction in my house, it is the bathroom, this is my wife [texting].”
While Schulz has clashed with Cameron over Europe, he does not seem to put much faith in Ed Miliband, the Labour party leader. He explains that his theory is that British politicians need to be tough. “Especially in Great Britain, you need this. People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody street fighter.” He sticks his neck out pugnaciously, and fixes me with a stare and I try to look back unblinkingly. “If you look into the eyes of Ed, he has a lot of problems to look back.”
Schulz’s brand of frank talk is the kind of thing that infuriates many national politicians, who still instinctively dismiss European parliamentarians as second-raters. But he has plans to elevate himself to the front rank of European leaders. His term as president of the parliament runs out next year. Though he has not yet officially declared his hand, it is widely believed he will then be a candidate to be president of the European Commission, the EU’s powerful executive, currently headed by the Portuguese politician José Manuel Barroso. New rules that give a much larger role to the European Parliament in the election of the commission president may well work in his favour.
The fact that Schulz clearly has his eyes on the commission presidency points to the mix of ambition and self-interest that seems to drive him. Dining with him, I am left in little doubt that he genuinely and passionately believes in the mission of the European Parliament. But it is also true that its growing power has already proved a splendid vehicle for his own advancement.
Schulz believes that next year’s elections to the European Parliament could prove a vital turning point for Europe. His vision is that, with each pan-European party, such as his own Socialist grouping and the centre-right European People’s Party, nominating a candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, a genuine political contest will emerge that will excite voters across the continent and reverse the trend of steadily declining turnouts in elections to the European Parliament. This vision strikes me as delusional but perhaps that is my inner Little Englander speaking.
Dinner is coming to a close. We are asked if we want dessert but decline and opt for coffee instead. Still, the restaurant cannot forebear from bringing us a delightful little fruit salad drink – and I notice later that they have not charged us for the coffees. We are clearly popular.
As we sip our drinks, there is still time for one last dark warning about the future of Europe. Leaning forward, the president says: “Our generation have lived in such certain times, secure times, that we cannot imagine how it was in the past. But nothing is excluded. Nothing. We have banished the demons of the 20th century but we have not eliminated them: hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, nationalism. Look at what’s happening in Hungary. Young students in Budapest are painting on the door of a professor – ‘Jew’. These are students doing this, not football hooligans. We have the privilege that we have never seen such people in power but there is no guarantee it will not happen. My protection against them is a strong European Union.”
After that, there seems nothing much left to say so I call for the bill. Earlier in the evening, Schulz had said that he must pay, explaining that parliamentarians are not allowed to accept hospitality. I counter-explained that while our guests choose the restaurant, FT journalists are obliged to pay. It is one of those British rules. So, a trifle reluctantly, Schulz lets me settle the bill and heads back to his Strasbourg hotel – and his diary.
Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator
4 Rue Klein, Strasbourg
Foie Gras au torchon x2 €50.00
Sucette d’agneau €35.00
Sea bass €36.00
Glass of Cairanne 2010, Côtes du Rhône €7.50
Fruit juice x4 €26.00
Sparkling water €6.00
Still water €3.50
Espresso x2 Free